Alberta government won't close or delist provincial parks

All of Alberta's provincial parks will will remain open and maintain their current protection, the province announced on Tuesday, despite plans earlier this year to close or delist several sites.

Province says all parks will stay open whether or not operating partners are found

In March, Environment Minister Jason Nixon announced the province was closing 20 provincial parks and removing 164 protected areas from the parks list. On Tuesday, the government announced no parks would be delisted or closed. (Wallis Snowdon/CBC)

Alberta's provincial parks will remain open and maintain their current protection, the province announced on Tuesday, despite plans earlier this year to close or delist dozens of sites.

According to a government news release Tuesday, none of the 175 parks originally slated for potential closure or delisting will meet that fate. Instead, more than a dozen parks will be operated through partnerships with organizations and communities around Alberta. Those without a partnership will not be delisted. 

In February, the province announced a plan to save $5 million through fully or partially closing 20 parks or recreation areas, and delisting 164 sites in hopes that third parties could take over their management. If no third party manager could be found, the site would lose park status and revert to general Crown land.

The Alberta government published a list of Alberta Parks partnerships on Tuesday, but the list doesn't include all of the sites that were being considered for closure or partnership in the spring.

Environment Minister Jason Nixon said Tuesday that all parks will maintain their designation and protections in law, even if the province doesn't find another group to partner with for their management.

"The fact that a parks/public rec area listed under the 2020 optimization plan has not secured a partnership does not mean it will close," Nixon posted on Twitter Tuesday.

"All current parks will remain parks. All will remain protected and accessible to Albertans. Period."

The province announced its secured or maintained partnerships for 170 parks and public recreation area sites, but it isn't clear how many are new partnerships and how many sites the province is still seeking partners to manage. 

Partner organizations may operate local campgrounds and day-use areas, the province said. The groups partnering with the province to keep these parks open include Indigenous communities like the Buffalo Lake Métis Settlement, municipal organizations like the Special Areas Board and non-profit groups like Nordiq Alberta.

Tuesday's announcement gave no further details about how the parks partnerships will work.

But on Wednesday, a statement issued by Nixon's office said Albertans would see few changes to day-to-day operations and facilities beyond prospective site upgrades.

The statement added that the parks department will still oversee management of these sites as past governments have done in similar parks partnerships.

Breath of fresh air

The Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society (CPAWS) and the Alberta Environmental Network started the Defend Alberta Parks campaign after the government announced its plans to delist or close dozens of sites. The campaign led to tens of thousands of lawn signs and letters sent protesting the government's proposed changes.

The province responded with its own campaign, but also quietly removed the list of parks and recreational areas slated for closure and delisting from its website.

Tuesday's announcement was a breath of fresh air for CPAWS after months of concern that the government's initial plan would lower the standard of protection for provincial parks.

Christopher Smith, parks coordinator for CPAWS Northern Alberta Chapter said the organization would like to hear more about the nature of the partnerships government is signing with third parties to manage the parks.

"We don't know what kinds of partnerships have been signed," Smith said. 

"Some are facility-operating agreements, some are just short-term contracts. So without any additional elaboration from the partners or the government, we're not actually sure what these partnerships entail."

NDP environment critic Marlin Schmidt said he was relieved the government was backing away from its earlier plan, but said he still has questions about who the province is partnering with to manage parks. He said it's important to Albertans to ensure the parks are being maintained properly. 

Schmidt added he wants to make sure the cost to operate Alberta's parks isn't downloaded as user fees.

"Albertans value their natural spaces, the natural heritage we have here in Alberta, and by closing or delisting almost 200 sites, that would have been a significant blow to the conservation of Alberta's natural gifts," Schmidt said.

"Parks belong to the people of Alberta, and these shouldn't be operated on a for-profit basis."